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Murphy to challenge fellow Democrat Cohen for state Senate seat

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Former state Rep. Erin Murphy launched a primary campaign Wednesday against longtime DFL state Sen. Dick Cohen of St. Paul.
Pugmire, Tim

Updated: 2:54 p.m.

A clash of two prominent Democrats is shaping up for a St. Paul state Senate seat, one of a handful of challenges to incumbents from within the party so far.

Former Minnesota House Majority Leader Erin Murphy announced a campaign Wednesday to unseat DFLer Dick Cohen from a Senate seat he’s held since 1987. In kicking off her bid, Murphy said she doesn’t see enough urgency from Cohen to address important issues.

“The urgency of the issues in front of us today demands more of us than waiting,” Murphy said.

Murphy said she would be out front in more debates on pressing topics. 

“Not only being an effective legislator inside the Capitol, but really working successfully with people outside of the Capitol and organizing support for the issues like climate change, like single-payer health care, reproductive freedom, gun violence,” she said.

In an interview, Cohen said he’s ready to defend his record.

“I assume it will be a spirited campaign. I’m going to run on my record, which is as progressive as any legislator in this state,” Cohen said. “And more importantly, my leadership in the Senate where I have led progressive fights, I have led budget fights.”

When Democrats held the Senate majority, Cohen served as chairman of the powerful Finance Committee.

He said he’s in tune with the district covering neighborhoods not far from the Capitol and holds regular events for constituents.

Murphy, a registered nurse, was first elected to the House in 2006 and rose to majority leader in 2013. She held that title for two years.

Murphy left the Legislature after 2018, when she ran instead for governor. She won the state DFL endorsement but lost to Tim Walz in a primary.

Cohen said there hasn’t been ill-will between the two. He backed Walz ahead of the DFL state convention but said he later threw his support to Murphy during their summer primary race.

Walz, who moved into the Summit Avenue residence after winning the governor’s office last year, is now a voter in the district. He declined to take sides Wednesday.

“My focus is on making sure we have a working Democratic majority in the Senate and that’s where my first concern is,” Walz said. “I’ll let that work itself out.”

He praised Cohen as “a great voice and a supporter on the Senate side.”

Murphy rejected the idea that the governor’s race led to a political fallout with Cohen.

Murphy said she recently informed Cohen of her intentions over coffee.

“Neither of us tried to talk the other out of the race. We each have to make our own decisions. Elections are choices. Elections are meant to be contests. I believe he has served this district honorably. And I have something to offer and so does he and we will bring that to voters and it will be up to them.”

Cohen said it’s too soon to say if he’ll honor the party’s endorsement next year or press ahead to a possible summer primary regardless. Murphy said she will abide by the endorsement process.

Several legislators from reliably Democratic districts have attracted challengers from within their party heading into 2020.

DFL analyst Todd Rapp said the electorate is especially engaged and becoming more polarized.

“The emerging strong progressive wing of the Democratic Party I think is impatient,” Rapp said. ”They think they are the dominant force right now in the party and they think they should have more power than they do.”

The outcomes will determine how state laws around guns, taxes and other issues get shaped at the Capitol.

Republicans could see some endorsement or primary contests to determine who from their side will appear on fall ballots. With President Donald Trump atop the ballot, there could be pressure on their candidates to fall in line.

But Amy Koch, a former Republican state Senate majority leader, said her party has already seen its shakeout — starting with the tea party and extending to the Trump movement.

"What you have seen definitely from where we were is the rise of the grassroots voice in things versus sort of the old-school, top-down party folks," she said.

In Carver County, there’s an open seat after freshman Republican Sen. Scott Jensen decided against running for reelection. Jensen is a doctor who had broken with his party on some health care measures and gun control.

Two Republicans have jumped in already: Victoria Mayor Tom Funk and Chanhassen City Council Member Julia Coleman, who got in the race Wednesday.

Both are running as strong conservatives who would fight to keep taxes low and new gun restrictions at bay. 

Coleman said Republicans shouldn’t take the seat for granted, noting DFL success flipping traditionally red seats in 2018.

“Yes, this is a conservative district but whoever wins the endorsement needs to be willing to put in the work to reach out to voters to bring more people into the party and to mobilize and engage people on Election Day,” said Coleman, who is daughter-in-law to former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman.

Next year’s race for legislative control has more at stake than usual. The parties who lead the House and Senate will work with Walz to redraw the political maps for the next decade.